It's no secret that our blog has been highly critical of President Obama and his security policies. Barely one year into his term, Mr. Obama and his team have committed a number of critical blunders, including cancellation of missile defense deployments in eastern Europe; delayed approval for the surge in Afghanistan, and giving Iran a year to "come around" on giving up its nuclear program. Repercussions from those decisions alone will haunt the U.S. for years to come.
But if President Obama has made his share of mistakes, he also deserves credit for getting a few things right. At the top of that list is the "drone campaign" against Taliban and Al Qaida leaders in Afghanistan, Yemen and the tribal lands of western Pakistan. By one tally, drone strikes have eliminated 14 of Al Qaida's Top 20 leaders over the last year.
Indeed, the emergence of UAV technology, backed by all-source intelligence, has become our most effective tool for targeting terrorist leaders. Carrying sensor packages and Hellfire missiles, Predator and Reaper drones can orbit over terrorist havens for hours, transmitting real-time video to intelligence cells. Analysts can "fuse" the imagery with information from other sources and if they confirm the presence of a wanted terrorist, the drone's mission changes from "hunter" to "killer" with the push of a button.
Still, not everyone is a fan of the drone campaign. Writing in Thursday's edition of The New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen decries the lack of "accountability" in UAV strikes. He argues that the U.S. government has never disclosed key details of the program, ranging from the number of terror leaders eliminated by drone attacks, to the rules of engagement used in deciding where (and when) such strikes will occur.
Cohen also describes the drone campaigns as unjustified "revenge killings:"
Revenge killings don’t pass the test for me. They’re unacceptable under international law. I want to know that any target is selected because there is verifiable intelligence that he’s actively planning a terrorist attack on the United States or its allies; that the danger is pressing; that arrest is impossible; and that civilian lives are not wantonly risked.
The bar of pre-emptive self-defense is then passed. A pinpoint strike is better than the Afghan or Iraqi scenarios. But that bar must be high. America departs at its peril from its principles.
I know, terrorists have no rule book, no borders and no compunction. The global war on terror (GWOT) is untidy. Still, the current accountability void for U.S. targeted killing is unacceptable.
The rest of Mr. Cohen's column is a (predictable) attack on Israeli drone strikes and the recent assassination of a Hamas operative in Dubai, presumably by a Mossad hit team. He believes that following the Israeli example diminishes our standing in the global community. Cohen also states that "fear" of potential terror attacks cannot become a global license for the U.S. to kill.
But such arguments miss essential points. First, our drone attacks in the Middle East have been carried out (largely) with the tacit support of local regimes. To be fair, officials in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen have complained about the collateral damage that is sometimes a product of these strikes. But the same leaders also realize that the UAV strikes are eliminating potential threats to their own government.
Without the drone campaign, the U.S. would be leaning heavily on local security forces to go after terrorists inside their countries. In some instances (Yemen and Afghanistan) the national Army and paramilitary forces are ineffective, or incapable of carrying out complex counter-insurgency operations targeting key terrorist leaders. That means greater U.S. participation (and all the risks entailed), and more claims that we are extending "our war" into countries like Yemen and Pakistan, causing unnecessary headaches for those regimes.
In the case of Pakistan, one can argue that the Islamabad government should be doing more to eliminate the terrorist threat. After all, Pakistan's intelligence service had a role in creating the Taliban, and the regime's reluctance to go after insurgents in the tribal areas helped spark a terrorist resurgence over the past couple of years.
However, the are limits (both politically and militarily) on what the Pakistan Army can accomplish. Past campaigns in the tribal regions were only marginally successful, but more recent efforts have been more effective, thanks (in part) to the drone campaign. With senior terrorists dead--or in hiding--after UAV attacks, Taliban and Al Qaida elements have been put on the defensive, though both groups continue to lash out with deadly bomb attacks.
A similar trend is evident in Pakistani cities, where a joint CIA-ISI campaign has rounded up a number of terror suspects over the past year. That effort also builds on the success of the drone campaign; with Predators and Reapers targeting insurgents in the tribal lands and Afghanistan, more terror leaders are migrating to Pakistan's sprawling urban areas, and onto the radar of CIA and ISI operatives. The death--or capture--of terror leaders clearly benefits both countries, eliminating both regional and global threats.
Finally, there's the matter of fleeting targets. In Waziristan or Afghanistan, the "window" for eliminating a terror suspect is often narrow; choices must be made quickly, on the best available intelligence. If the decision is delayed, the terror cell leader often gets away, to live and kill again. More often than not, there simply isn't enough time to go through the checks and balances Cohen alludes to in his column.
Similarly, the "full accounting" demanded by Cohen (and other critics) is an equally bad idea. Disclosing the mechanics of the program would give terrorists valuable insights into how the strikes are conducted, allowing them to develop effective counter-measures. Currently, the terrorists seem to have only limited awareness of the UAVs and their operational tactics. One insurgent was killed by a drone-launched missile while sunning himself on the roof of his compound, enjoying a back rub from his wife.
Such attacks send shock waves through terrorist ranks, and they're one reason that the most senior targets have gone underground, where their effectiveness as leaders is further diminished. The ability of our UAVs to range across broad areas--and locate specific figures--keeps individuals like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar on the run.
Mr. Obama would be well-advised to continue his drone wars; they're an effective complement to other military and intelligence operations in the Middle East. And contrary to the wishes of the NYT, the administration doesn't owe us a full accounting of what the UAVs (and their support crews) are up to. As we've written before, a democracy has certain secrets that must be preserved to ensure our national security. The scope of our drone war against terrorists is one of those secrets.